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Calf Scours Signs, Treatment and Prevention

March 7, 2014
Calf Snow Hay
Calves with scours are often weak and depressed, and may lose their desire to nurse.  
 
 

By: Kevin Gould, Michigan State University Extension and Dan Grooms, DVM, MSU College of Veterinary Medicine

Common signs of calf scours:

  • Watery stools that may be brown, grey, green, yellow in color. Occasionally blood and mucus may be evident in the stools. Rust colored or very bloody stools are often associated with infection with Salmonella, coccidia, or Clostridium perfringens.
  • Calves are often weak and depressed, and may lose their desire to nurse.
  • Calves develop a sunken-eyed appearance as a result of dehydration. The bony prominence of their hips, shoulders, and ribs may become more apparent as the calves dehydrate and metabolize their body fat reserves.
  • Calves may stagger or sway as they walk; this often reflects weakness, low blood sugar concentrations, and/or alteration of the acid-base balance of their bodily fluids.
  • Calves become too weak to stand. Left untreated, death typically occurs within 24 hours.
  • Depending on the cause(s) and the severity of the infection, a case of scours in a calf can last 1-2 days or as long as 2 weeks.


Recommended treatments for calf scours:

The highest priority in treating scours is to give back to the calf the water and electrolytes that it has lost in scours – this is called fluid therapy. This corrects dehydration, restores normal acid-base balance, and replaces salts in the calf’s bodily fluids. Methods include:

  • Oral administration: This option is most appropriate for scouring calves that are still able to stand and who are alert enough to follow their dams and move away when approached. Since most beef calves will not accept being fed by a bottle, water and electrolytes are most often delivered by an esophageal feeder. Electrolyte powders that have been prepared by veterinary pharmaceutical manufacturers are carefully balanced to provide the correct proportions of salts relative to water for optimal benefit to the calf; these are recommended over home-prepared recipes. Depending on the size of the calf and the severity of the scours, 2 - 6 quarts of electrolytes may need to be administered each day. Typically, the total volume of fluid is divided into two or more feedings per day.
  • Intravenous administration: This route of fluid administration is typically reserved for those calves that are too weak to stand or too lethargic to follow the dam or avoid being caught. The fluids are typically administered through a catheter placed in the jugular vein. Some experienced operators can place a catheter in a scouring calf’s vein; this is most often performed by a veterinarian or veterinary technician. The volume to be given depends on the calf’s size and the severity of the scours.
  • Nutritional support: A calf with severe scours may not want to nurse much in the first day or two of the illness. Most calves will regain their appetite with appropriate fluid therapy, as described above. However, since scours can last several days, baby calves who fail to nurse or be fed milk are at risk of starvation. Consult with your veterinarian to develop a feeding regimen for scouring calves.
  • Thermal support: Providing bedding, shelter from wind, rain, and snow so that the calf does not experience excessive cold stress on top of its existing disease.
  • Practicing proper biosecurity is critical.
  • Ideally, people working with infected calves should not work with healthy calves.
  • Whenever possible, isolate scouring calves and their dams from healthy cattle.
  • It is important to note that some infectious agents that make calves ill can also make people sick. People working with scouring calves should wash their hands before and after handling calves, their feed or their bedding. Practicing proper biosecurity is critical.


Calf scours prevention:

  • Ensure that all newborn calves receive colostrum. If the delivery was difficult, the dam may be tired or painful, and the calf may be weakened as well; this may result in a failure of the calf to nurse colostrum. In such cases, it is prudent to milk the colostrum from the dam and feed it to the calf via an esophageal feeder. How much colostrum should a calf receive? The calf must nurse or be given 2 quarts of colostrum during the first 2-4 hours after being born and a total of 4 quarts in 12 hours.
  • It is often a good plan to obtain fresh colostrums from a local dairy and freeze it or purchase a colostrum replacer for occasions when the dam does not have colostrum. If sourcing colostrum from a local dairy farm, beware of potential pathogens that can be transmitted through colostrum such as Johne’s disease and Bovine Leukosis Virus.
  • Consider a vaccination program for your cow herd. Be sure to consult your local veterinarian about vaccine products and time of administration. Timing is critical as colostral antibodies need to be in adequate concentrations in colostrums to provide ample passive immunity to the calf.
  • Maintain a clean calving area. Do not calve on pastures where cows have been kept in large numbers for long periods of time or sours has been recently diagnosed.
  • Calve in dry areas and drain pastures or corrals to minimize accumulation of moisture.
  • Segregate calves by age to prevent passage of infectious agents from apparently healthy older calves to newborns. See the Nebraska Sandhills calving system as an example
  • Maintain adequate protein, energy, and micronutrient nutrition for the dam during gestation.


This all may seem overwhelming to inexperienced producers. They key is to prevent a scours infection and outbreak whenever possible. Good biosecury, hygiene and proper nutrition for the dam and calf are imperative. Infectious agents that cause calf scours are shed by healthy cows and calves so it is not considered practical to expect to prevent scours from ever occurring on your farm. A target should be to have no more than 2-3 percent of calves born each year develop scours.

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RELATED TOPICS: Calves, Cattle, Animal Health

 
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